War of 1812: Commodore Stephen Decatur

Stephen Decatur
Commodore Stephen Decatur. US Naval History & Heritage Command


Early Life

Born at Sinepuxent, MD, on January 5, 1779, Stephen Decatur was the son of Captain Stephen Decatur, Sr. and his wife Anne. A naval officer during the American Revolution, Decatur, Sr. had his son educated at the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. The younger Decatur found a love of the sea as a youngster when he accompanied his father on a merchant voyage in the hopes that it would help cure a case of whooping cough. Returning healthy, he began voicing a desire to return to sea, a fact that dismayed his mother who wished him to pursue a career in the clergy.

Graduating from the Episcopal Academy, Decatur enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1795 and was a classmate of future naval officers Charles Stewart and Richard Somers. Increasingly bored and unhappy with university life, he elected to leave school at the age of 17. With support from his father, Decatur secured employment with the shipbuilding firm of Gurney and Smith and aided in securing timber for the keel of the frigate USS United States (44 guns)

Early Career

Wishing to follow his father in the naval service, Decatur received the aid of Commodore John Barry in obtaining a midshipman's warrant. Entering the service on April 30, 1798, Decatur was assigned to United States with Barry as his commanding officer. To foster his son's nautical education, the elder Decatur hired Talbot Hamilton, a former officer in the Royal Navy, to tutor Stephen in navigation and related fields.

Decatur sailed aboard the frigate during the Quasi-War and saw action in the Caribbean as United States captured several French privateers. Demonstrating his skill as a gifted sailor and leader, Decatur received a promotion to lieutenant in 1799. When United States required repairs in 1800, he transferred to the brig USS Norfolk (18). Sailing to the Caribbean, Decatur took part in numerous actions before returning to United States later that year. At the end of the conflict in September 1800, the US Navy was downsized by Congress with many officers discharged from the service.

First Barbary War

One of thirty-six lieutenants retained by the US Navy, Decatur was assigned to the frigate USS Essex (32) as first lieutenant in 1801. Part of Commodore Richard Dale's squadron, Essex sailed to the Mediterranean to deal with those Barbary states that were preying upon American shipping. After subsequent service aboard USS New York (36) as first lieutenant, Decatur returned the United States and took command of the new brig USS Argus (20). Sailing across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, he turned the ship over to Lieutenant Isaac Hull and was given command of the 12-gun schooner USS Enterprise (12).

Burning Philadelphia

On December 23, 1803, Enterprise and the frigate USS Constitution (44) captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico after a sharp fight. Renamed Intrepid, the ketch was given to Decatur for use in a daring raid to destroy the frigate USS Philadelphia (36) which had run aground in Tripoli harbor and been captured in October. Unwilling to allow the ship to be repaired and employed by the Tripolitans, Commodore Edward Preble directed that a plan be designed to re-capture and destroy the ship. 

At 7:00 PM on February 16, 1804, Intrepid, disguised as a Maltese merchant ship and flying British colors, entered Tripoli harbor with Decatur in command. To further the ruse, several Sicilian volunteers joined the crew and an Arabic-speaking pilot, Salvador Catalano, was employed. Claiming they had lost their anchors in a storm, Catalano asked permission to tie up alongside the captured frigate. As the two vessels touched, Decatur stormed aboard Philadelphia with sixty men. Fighting with swords and pikes, they took control of the ship. Though there was a brief hope that the frigate could be sailed out of the harbor, Philadelphia proved in no condition to get under way.

As Intrepid could not tow the larger ship, preparations commenced to burn it. With combustibles in place, Philadelphia was set on fire. Waiting until he was sure the fire had taken hold, Decatur was the last to leave the burning ship. Escaping the scene in Intrepid, Decatur and his men successfully evaded fire from the harbor's defenses and reached the open sea. When he heard of Decatur's achievement, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called it "the most bold and daring act of the age."

In recognition for his successful raid, Decatur was promoted to captain, making him, at age 25, the youngest to hold the rank. For the remainder of the war, he commanded the frigates Constitution and Congress (38) before returning home at its conclusion in 1805. Three years later he served as part of the court martial that tried Commodore James Barron for his role in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. In 1810, he was given command of United States, then in ordinary at Washington DC. Sailing south to Norfolk, Decatur oversaw the refitting of the ship.

War of 1812

While in Norfolk, Decatur encountered Captain John S. Garden of the new frigate HMS Macedonian. During a meeting between the two, Garden wagered Decatur a beaver hat that Macedonian would defeat United States should the two ever meet in battle. When war with Britain was declared two years later, United States sailed to join Commodore John Rodgers' squadron at New York. Putting to sea, the squadron cruised the east coast until August 1812, when it put into Boston. Returning to sea on October 8, Rodgers led his ships in search of British vessels.

United States-Macedonian

Three days after departing Boston, Decatur and United States were detached from the squadron. Sailing east, Decatur spotted a British frigate on October 28, approximately 500 miles south of the Azores. As United States closed to engage, the enemy ship was identified as Macedonian (42). Opening fire at 9:20 AM, Decatur masterfully outmaneuvered his adversary and methodically pummeled the British ship, ultimately forcing its surrender. Taking possession of Macedonian, Decatur found that his guns had inflicted 104 casualties, while United States had only suffered 12.

USS President

After two weeks of repairs to Macedonian, Decatur and his prize sailed for New York, arriving to a massive victory celebration on December 4, 1812. Refitting his ships, Decatur put to sea on May 24, 1813, with United States, Macedonian, and the sloop Hornet (20). Unable to escape the blockade, they were forced into New London, CT by a strong British squadron on June 1. Trapped in port, Decatur and the crew of United States transferred to the frigate USS President (44) at New York in early 1814. On January 14, 1815, Decatur attempted to slip through the British blockade of New York.

After running aground and damaging the ship's hull leaving New York, Decatur elected to return to port for repairs. As President sailed home, it was attacked by the British frigates HMS Endymion (47), HMS Majestic (56), HMS Pomone (46), and HMS Tenedos (38). Unable to escape due the damaged condition of his ship, Decatur prepared for battle. In a three-hour fight, President succeeded in disabling Endymion but was forced to surrender by the other three frigates after sustaining heavy casualties. Taken prisoner, Decatur and his men were transported to Bermuda where all learned that the war had technically ended in late December. Decatur returned to the US aboard HMS Narcissus (32) the following month.

Later Life

As one of the US Navy's great heroes, Decatur was immediately given command of a squadron with orders to suppress the Barbary pirates which had become active again during the War of 1812. Sailing to the Mediterranean, his ships captured the Algerian frigate Mashouda and swiftly compelled the Dey of Algiers to make peace. Using a similar style of "gunboat diplomacy," Decatur was able to compel the other Barbary states to make peace on terms advantageous to the US.

In 1816, Decatur was named to the Board of Naval Commissioners in Washington DC. Taking up his post, he had a home designed for him and his wife, Susan, by famed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Four years later, Decatur was challenged to a duel by Commodore James Barron for comments he had made regarding the latter's conduct during the 1807 Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. Meeting outside the city at Bladensburg Dueling Field on March 22, 1820, the two squared off with Captain Jesse Elliott and Commodore William Bainbridge as their seconds. An expert shot, Decatur only intended to wound Barron. As the two fired, Decatur severely wounded Barron in the hip, however he himself was fatally shot in the abdomen. He died later that day at his house in Lafayette Square. Over 10,000 attended Decatur's funeral including the President, Supreme Court, and the majority of Congress.